The Old-Fashioned Cocktail: Do Bitters Make a Difference?

Old Fashioned CocktailWhile doing a bit of research for this blog post, I stumbled upon the following quote by Leonardo da Vinci:

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

Simple and sophisticated is the perfect way to describe a well crafted Old-Fashioned. A cube of sugar, a few dashes of Bitters, a teaspoon of water (still or fizzy. It’s your choice),  a couple ounces of whisky (usually Rye or Bourbon), and some ice, all blended together in the glass that you’ll be drinking out of. Sounds simple right? Then again, like most things in life, simplicity is a relative term…

Once you read a bit about the history of the Old-Fashioned, you realize that there have been numerous incarnations of this cocktail over it’s long and muddled (see what I did there?) history. Prior to Prohibition, it was as simple as I described, but once whisky became illegal, the Old-Fashioned evolved into something very complicated, and according to the experts, something positively dreadful since all kinds of stuff was added to this once simple drink in order to mask the flavor of the low quality whisky.

Rather than bore you any further with my rehashing of history, here are links to a few in-depth articles that discuss the evolution of the Old Fashioned (they also include some recipe variations):

So now that you’ve been schooled a bit on the origins of the Old-Fashioned Cocktail, let me tell you a bit about why we’ve decided to write about it…

In early December of 2013, we received an email from the company that hooked us up with Absinthe samples back in late 2012. Since has expanded into the Bitters and Digestif markets, they wanted to know if we’d be interested in writing up a post that featured their Cocktail Bitters Traveler’s Set by The Bitter Truth. Since you’re currently reading a blog post about a Rye Whisky Old-Fashioned made two different ways, we obviously accepted their offer.

Of the five bitters that were included in the Cocktail Bitters Traveler’s Set, we decided to use the Aromatic Bitters and Jerry Thomas’ Decanter Bitters since they seemed best suited to this cocktail. For the whiskey, we decided to go with a Rye since that’s what most experts recommend when they offer up Old-Fashioned cocktail recipes, and after reading Shane “How To Drink Whisky” Helmick’s review of the High West Double Rye, I decided to pick up a bottle expressly for this post (FYI, his review is right on the money, i.e. High West Double Rye is super tasty AND reasonably priced!).

After reading several Old-Fashioned recipes, I settled on David Wondrich’s recipe from which recommends using Angostura bitters. Here it is:

  • 1 sugar cube
  • 3 dashes Angostura bitters
  • Club soda
  • 2 ounces Rye Whiskey

Directions: Place the sugar cube (or 1/2 teaspoon loose sugar) in an Old-Fashioned glass. Wet it down with 2 or 3 dashes of Angostura bitters and a short splash of water or club soda. Crush the sugar with a wooden muddler, chopstick, strong spoon, lipstick, cartridge case, whatever. Rotate the glass so that the sugar grains and bitters give it a lining. Add a large ice cube. Pour in the rye (or bourbon). Serve with a stirring rod.

Here’s how you do it:

Now that you have some Old-Fashioned history as well as the reasons behind this post, lets get on with our tasting notes…

Old Fashioned #1: The Bitter Truth Aromatic Bitters

  • Limpd: On the nose, I’m getting candied herbal notes that are kind of Cognacish. I’m thinking Brenne and iced animal crackers. As far as the actual taste, it was mildly sweet. Just a very nice blend of the Double Rye and herbs. This drink goes down really easy which leads me to believe that having several of them in a short period of time is not a difficult task.
  • G-LO: Once you add ice to a drink, I have a hard time picking up on the aromas. The Rye definitely comes through, and I get hints of the bitters, but nothing really specific. Drinking it is a completely different story. This is a nicely balanced drink with a tasty mix of Rye spice, sugar sweetness, and a hint of herbal goodness. Much like Limpd, I see this as a drink that goes down way too easily.

Old Fashioned #2: The Bitter Truth Jerry Thomas’ Decanter Bitters

  • Limpd: On the nose, I’m not getting as much of the sweetness this time around. This one is definitely more on the herbal side with some celery seed, sage, and Old Bay Seasoning notes coming through. This version tasted a good bit different from the Aromatic Bitters Old Fashioned. It was a tiny bit harsher with very little sweetness. It’s not a bad drink by any stretch, but not as easy drinking as the first one.
  • G-LO: Again, tough for me to evaluate the nose on this one. As far as how it tastes, it’s definitely not as sweet with these bitters. I like it, but prefer the regular aromatic bitters. There was some of that celery seed that I picked up when I smelled the bitters straight which I think threw things off a bit. Still a nice cocktail, but a notch or two below the other bitters.


Our takeaway from all of this Old-Fashioned cocktail making business is this: ingredients matter, and even something as minute as a few dashes of bitters can make all the difference in the world. While we can’t claim to have created the ultimate Old-Fashioned, we have definitely learned to appreciate what it takes to make a well crafted cocktail. There will definitely be many more Old-Fashioned creations in our future!


Many thanks to for sending us these very generous samples!

9 replies »

  1. *Blink* REPEAT *Blink*

    (didn’t work)

    *step softly to the mirror and peer ever so carefully to check for signs of a chalk outline or crime scene tape around my head…..*

    (not there – more confused)

    Old Fashioned? Who writes about anything old fashioned by employing modern technology? I was expecting to have been prompted to commence a geocache-esque (albeit via Native American smoke signal rather than handheld GPS – speaking of which, good thing we got away from that whole smoke signal thing before moving to smartphones because I can only imaging the discomfort that would have been caused by having to maintain a smoldering fire in your hands whilst directing an associate to his or her destination) quest for a stone tablet or parchment scroll whereupon your post was published.

    Such is not the case – obviously. Well OK then. I’ll depress keys in the same playground (HEY Limpd! Get off the e-ter totter!).

    My initial reaction is that this drink is far too complicated and proscriptive. It reminds of the angst I imagine was Alan Alda’s burden upon repeatedly having to come to grips with the fact that the Jeeps and other vehicles used in *M*A*S*H* didn’t have electric windows or bluetooth streaming for his Haircut 100 and Depache Mode playlists. That said, it looks interesting and I have to admit I’m intrigued. Unfortunately, I don’t have a sugar cubing thingy (Judasim rarely calls upon the flock to do much of anything with sugar cubes (or building cubes/blocks in general). I’d also want to use a full sized light saber to muddle the sugar and rarely have the patience or fine motor skills necessary to wield it skillfully in such a constricted environment as an old fashioned glass. I guess I’d be OK with it if I could muddle in a larger vessel, or even al fresco, and then transfer the sugar, bitters, silly water slurry to the target glass.

    As for there being a discernible difference (especially in taste) between even a few drops of bitters, I’m not surprised. After all, what are bitters but highly concentrated flavors? A little goes a long way so even little variations in ingredients should result in observably different flavors.

    I know, where’s the Mandy Patinkin reference? Well, I know he’d be as confused with a stack of sugar building blocks as the next Matzo Man. Then again, I am becoming a bit more comfortable with Minecraft……

    Nice post (and thanks for not closing the cell phone only lane).



    • Slurry? Are you finally drinking again? If so, I’m thinking you should re-invent yourself as an Absinthe expert. That would be the perfect new wave poison. Plus, it’s green. Gotta love that!


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